The Undiscovered Country
In an attempt to broaden my knowledge of financial secrecy, I picked up William Brittain-Catlin’s (2005) Offshore: The dark side of the global economy (I also wanted to read Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world, but it is on order at my local public library). Little did I know the Gordon Commission studied secrecy and tax havens in 1981 in their Tax havens and their use by United States taxpayers.
What I gleaned from Brittain-Catlin’s book regarding the shadow world of Cayman tax havens is unsettling; this type of financial secrecy is truly secrecy’s undiscovered country. The secret realm as Brittain-Catlin conceives Cayman and other tax havens, has a “philosophical prehistory” (p. 117) that is characterized as a “conflict between shape shifting capital and the stable state” (p.121). In an almost Orwellian tone, Brittain-Catlin observes:
In our offshore world, secrecy has become the new freedom, a matter of preservation that has run away from the painful pursuit of freedom in the public realm. Freedom as secrecy is a retreat from political engagement except insofar as that engagement is determined by economic motive. It is the linchpin on which the split between capital and state, and our detachment now turns. In Cayman, we can discover a threshold, on the other side of which we observe a secret realm that proudly and staunchly defends itself against global insecurity and fear, and prospers at their – and therefore our – expense (p. 25-26).
Brittain-Catlin also explores the state of Delaware, where many of the globe’s multinational corporations find advantages such as “inexpensive same-day company incorporation…freedom to operate companies anonymously, no required public disclosure of accounts, shareholder secrecy” (p.79). Delaware, as Brittain-Catlin notes, offers a benefit not available through Cayman: Political advantage at home” (p. 81). This discussion perhaps brings to mind David Reilly‘s article “Secret banking cabal emerges from AIG shadows” on the Federal Reserve system (Bloomberg, January, 28, 2010).
On a related note, the Tax Justice Network (TJN) proposed the term “tax haven” be replaced with the concept of secrecy jurisdictions:
Our language is new and perhaps surprising, not least because it deliberately avoids referring to tax and financial issues in defining the locations and the issues. This is because secrecy and the abuse of laws and regulations that it permits is at the core of the issue we have been studying. Secrecy is the original problem; tax abuses are an outcome (but not the only outcome) of that secrecy.
So we have replaced the term “tax haven” with “secrecy jurisdiction” in our research. Secrecy jurisdictions are defined as places that intentionally create regulation for the primary benefit and use of those not resident in their geographical domain. That regulation is designed to undermine the legislation or regulation of another jurisdiction. To facilitate its use secrecy jurisdictions also create a deliberate, legally backed veil of secrecy that ensures that those from outside the jurisdiction making use of its regulation cannot be identified to be doing so (“Secrecy jurisdictions: Mapping the faultlines,” para.14).
TJN’s Financial Secrecy Index (FSI) also provides information on “60 secrecy jurisdictions…these places offer not only freedom from tax, but also a shield against any number of rules, laws and regulations of other jurisdictions. What these places have in common is legal and financial secrecy.”
Kelly Carr & Brian Grow’s Special report: A little house of secrets on the Great Plains on Wyoming Corporate Services, a “little Cayman Island on the Great Plains” is an important piece of research on secrecy jurisdictions operating in the U.S.
Center for Public Integrity. (2013, November 20). Push against offshore secrecy an uphill battle.
Congressional Research Service (2013, January 23). Tax Havens: International Tax Avoidance and Evasion.
The Economist (2013, February 16). Storm survivors, offshore financial centres.
Global Financial Integrity studied “private, non-resident deposits” in 2010.
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. (2014). Luxembourg Leaks: Global Companies’ Secrets Exposed. Retrieved from http://www.icij.org/project/luxembourg-leaks
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. (2016). The Panama papers. Retrieved from https://panamapapers.icij.org/
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. (2013, April 3). Secrecy for sale: Inside the global offshore money maze. Retrieved from http://www.icij.org/offshore/secret-files-expose-offshores-global-impact
David Cay Johnston’s (2011, August 23). America is GE’s tax haven illustrates the myth of offshore tax havens.